On Tuesday evening just after 9:00 pm a New Mexico State Police helicopter landed near the 12,000 foot level of Santa Fe Baldy to rescue a female hiker who had become separated from her party. The hiker, Megumi Yamamoto (a student at the University of New Mexico) called 911 from her cell phone around 5:30 pm to report that she had become separated from her boyfriend while hiking.
The high altitude equipped police helicopter was piloted by Sgt. Andy Tingwall (36) with Officer Wesley Cox (29) performing the Tactical Flight Officer duties. Yamamoto was eventually located and loaded onto the helicopter for a flight back to Santa Fe. Shortly after take off the pilot radioed that they had "hit the mountain." State police dispatch asked if they were ok, and the pilot reportedly responded "not really." This was that last transmission from the helicopter crew.
Police officials believe the crash most likely occurred on the north west ridge of Santa Fe Baldy, an area described as rugged and inhospitable.
Additional rescue helicopters were launched but were unable to reach the crash location due to adverse weather, low visibility and snow storms.
Search and Rescue Crews hiked through the night in an attempt to reach the crash site, but still had not reached the scene by mid morning. The weather continued to keep rescue helicopters from locating the crash scene, although they were able to pick up the ELT (emergency locator transmittor) emitted by the helicopter.
At around 12:45 pm on Wednesday afternoon search crews located the TFO Wesley Cox, who though injured, had hiked over a mile down the mountain toward help. In addition to injuries from the crash, Cox was suffering from severe hypothermia. Officer Cox was hoisted off the mountain by a National Guard Black Hawk helicopter, with paramedics on board, and flown to a regional medical center for treatment.
Officer Cox was able to provide fellow officers with the first accounts of the crash. One New Mexico Telivision Station reported that Officer Cox indicated the helicopters tail rotor may have struck something as they lifted off. However, other reports indicated that the helicopter may have crashed several minutes after take off.
Officer Cox did tell his rescuers and investigators that he believed he was the only survivor. Cox indicated that all three occupants were ejected from the aircraft as it rolled down the mountainside. He was able to locate Yamamoto and check her vital signs, but concluded she was deceased. Officer Cox apparently maintained voice contact with Sgt. Tingwall for a period of time, but presumably could not locate him in the dark. He also told investigators that he crawled back inside the helicopter where he spent the night taking shelter from the snow storm.
By late Wednesday evening some searchers had reached the crash site and located the fuselage and debris field, but had yet to locate eithere Yamamoto or Sgt Tingwall.
Authorities have yet to report the make of helicopter that crashed. A number of news outlets showed photos of what appeared to be a New Mexico State Police Eurocopter "Astar", however the New Mexico State Police official website shows a picture of an Agusta A Power 109 (twin turbine) helicopter which it says is capable of high altitude rescues.
It was also reported that Sgt. Tingwall's wife is a dispatcher with the New Mexico State Police and was on duty at the communications center when the accident occurred.
Police Helicopter Pilot.com will continue to follow this story, and sends it's prayers to Sgt. Tingwall, Ms. Yamamoto and their families, and wishes a speedy recovery to Officer Cox.
Update on 2009-06-11 23:24 by PHP Staff
New Mexico State Police Chief Faron Segotta today confirmed that the bodies of Sgt. Andy Tingwall and UNM physics grad student Megumi Yamamoto have been removed from the helicopter crash site and are being transported via a motorcade to the medical examiners office.
Search and rescue workers located the bodies just prior to noon today but delayed the announcement presumably until family members received proper notification.
Two black hawk helicopters were able to land a the base of an 800' debris field this morning and off load two teams of searchers, who approached the crash site from two different angles.
A possible tail rotor strike continues to be mentioned in news reports as a potential cause of the crash. This information apparently comes from statements made by the lone survivor, Officer Wesley Cox, who was the Tactical Flight Officer on the helicopter.
Police Helicopter Pilot.com Staff sends their condolences to the families of Sgt. Tingwall and Ms. Yamamoto.
Please visit the New Mexico State Police Home Page for additional information on the death of Sgt. Tingwall.